Observation of the Week, 6/10/17

This leucisitic California Kingsnake, seen in California by @apatten, is our Observation of the Week! 

One of a naturalist’s maxims is that you always find the coolest thing when you’re not prepared for it - something Amy Patten knows well. “I was night driving with some friends on a warm night in the Mojave [and] I had forgotten my macro lens on this trip so I knew we'd see something good!” she recalls. “We were road cruising through creosote scrub way out in the middle of nowhere and had already stopped for a gopher snake. Then we saw a big snake moving across the road shortly after dusk, and I pulled over and hopped out of the car to get a closer look. When I first saw this snake, I couldn't believe my eyes!”

An experienced herpetologist, Amy has been working all over California on various reptile and amphibian conservation projects, so she knew she had found something special. “There are many aberrant morphs of California Kingsnake throughout the state,” she explains, “such as a striped morph in San Diego County and a black-bellied morph in the Central Valley, but I had no idea this leucistic ‘lavender phase’ could be found in the wild! As far as I know, wild lavender morphs have been found in LA and San Diego Counties, but not in the northern Mojave where we were.” Amy and her friends were “awestruck” at the snake and, while this morph can be found in the pet trade, she believes she was far enough from any habitation that it was unlikely this individual was a captive-bred animal. “After taking some photos,” Amy says, “we released the snake and it continued on its way across the desert plains.”

As Amy mentioned, California Kingsnakes are popular among the pet trade, but wild populations range throughout much of California and into Nevada, Arizona, Utah Colorado and Mexico. The most common form has dark bands (from black to light brown) and and light bands (from white to cream) with beautiful slate grey eyes. Like other kingsnakes, they have a varied diet that includes other snakes, even rattlesnakes, to whose venom they have immunity.

Amy is currently working with the Ventana Wilderness Alliance, and told me they recently started using iNaturalist help inventory the area.

The project allows us to track the spread of invasives, record phenology and document populations of special-status species. And there’s so much potential for hikers and backpackers in the wilderness to record valuable data on rare species, or find range extensions and new populations. We hope to use this data to work with the US Forest Service to guide management decisions for the Los Padres National Forest.  We also used iNaturalist to run our first-ever BioBlitz in April, which yielded some really amazing results. Our volunteers recorded a number of rare and endemic plants and documented several moth species which had never been recorded in Monterey County!

As for herself, Amy says that iNaturalist “has definitely” made her a better biologist, encouraging her to record more organisms when she’s out in the field on her own time, and has helped her branch into less-familiar taxa such as insects and mushrooms. “Entering my observations and identifying for other naturalists constantly sends me down rabbit holes digging out my field guides, scrutinizing range maps and looking up papers to provide the community with the best possible information for research-grade data,” she explains. “It’s both humbling and enlightening to realize how much there is to learn about taxa I thought I was an expert on!”

- by Tony Iwane


 - Check out other aberrant organisms in the Amazing Aberrants projects on iNat!

- Cool footage of a California Kingsnake grabbing and swallowing a rattlesnake - in slow motion! Try to disregard the overwrought music and narration.

- An introduced albino morph California Kingsnake population in the Canary Islands is decimating much of the native wildlife there

Posted by tiwane tiwane, June 10, 2017 18:39

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